Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Progressive Alternatives

After the collapse of communism, the world began to think that only one road leads to freedom and prosperity. This road has often been labeled “neoliberalism” or “the Washington consensus.” Much of my work in recent years has been devoted to the effort to demonstrate that there is an alternative that, although market-friendly and conducive to economic growth, also enables us both to democratize the market and to deepen democracy. The most important distinguishing feature of this alternative is its insistence on changing, step by step and part by part, the institutions with which we identify market economies, democracies, and free civil societies. We should think of this program as a direction rather than as a blueprint.

The progressive alternative proposed in these writings is “a second way,” intended to make “many ways” possible. The “second way” describes a broad gateway of institutional innovations through which contemporary societies must pass if they are to strengthen their capacity to develop the powers of humanity in different directions. Local heresies are not enough to counteract a universal orthodoxy.

These programmatic texts are connected with the antifaltalistic way of thinking that informs them. They are also related to my political activities and proposals in my own country, Brazil. The Brazilian programmatic pieces, represented in the Portuguese-language section of this website, are the most detailed and context-oriented of my writings about the progressive alternative. We must work at every level from the visionary to the practical, from the distant to the immediate, and from the world situation to the local circumstance. Alternatives created within the nation-sate must be echoed by changes in the arrangements of the international order that make the world more open to a pluralism of experience and direction.

The nations of the world have now become involuntarily joined in a single debate. We remain poor, however, in the means to organize a movement of opinion that can cross national frontiers and change our sense of the possibilities. The internet is one such means. Let’s use it.

The Progressive Alternative in a European Context

The first text below is an agenda I prepared for a meeting on the constitution of the European Union that was held at Harvard University in March 2002. Although it is a mere sketch, I place it here because it suggests a way of thinking about how European social democracy can be reinvented rather than hollowed out in this period of globalization and European integration. The relation between the commitment to develop the European difference and the effort to inspire differences within Europe — democracy as a machine for the production of distinction and novelty — is the overriding theme.

The second text, “Spain and its Future,” written late in 2001 for a Spanish newspaper, provides an example of how I imagine beginning a progressive programmatic argument today in a particular European national setting. An English translation is in progress.

The Progressive Alternative in a Chinese Context

Alongside a passage about China and its alternative futures, you will find here an article I wrote with Zhiyuan Cui and published in the New Left Review. There is no more important place in which to establish the debate about the alternative. An undercurrent of anguish and excitement in that great country presages its engagement in this discussion.

The Progressive Alternative in a Mexican Context

This letter of July 30, 2001 to President Vicente Fox of Mexico, was written at his request. It proposes a program of economic recovery and social reconstruction intended to turn a severe recession into a transformative opportunity. The letter seeks to answer the question: What, in the circumstances of a particular country like Mexico, is the most effective form of a Rooseveltian program today?

Out of desperation and faced with a global economic slowdown, progressive economists are tempted to return to vulgar, demand-oriented Keynesianism. There is a better alternative, connecting cumulative breakthroughs in supply constraints with cumulative breakthroughs in demand constraints and using the imperative of economic recovery as a chance to democratize the market and to deepen democracy. Many of the devices I propose are specific to Mexican realities, but the broad direction of the response is meant to address a predicament common to many countries now.

I had spoken with then Governor Fox over several years in the setting of meetings Jorge Castañeda (now Foreign Minister of Mexico) and I organized to bring together centrist and leftist forces in Latin America in the formulation of an alternative to neoliberalism. My attempt to persuade the President to become Roosevelt rather than Hoover has obviously failed. The debate and the struggle, however, in Mexico and in the world, are only beginning.

My letter to President Fox has now (February 2002) begun to provoke some discussion in Mexico. My first response to the discussion has been the “Tesis Mexicanas” that follow the letter in this part of the site.

Below the letter and the text I attach the introduction (México y la mediocridad) and the postscript (México sin miedo: el rumbo del país ahora) to “La Segunda Vúa: La Alternativa Progresista” (Grupo Editorial Porría, Mexico City), a Spanish language translation of “Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative,” accompanied by a Spanish language translation of my pamphlet “A Segunda Via: Presente e Futuro do Brasil,” republished in my Brazilian book of that same name. The introduction was written in early 2001. The postscript was written in August 1999.

The Future of American Progressivism (Book, 1998)

I wrote “The Future of American Progressivism” with Cornel West in an attempt to explore an American version of the worldwide debate about progressive alternatives. The particular proposals are tentative and circumstantial. However, the way of thinking and speaking exemplified in this short book is meant to suggest some of the resources American society and culture bring to the recovery of democratic possibility. We propose to trade in some bad American exceptionalism for some good American experimentalism. The book is available from Beacon Press.

The Left Alternative (Book, 1998)

Means and Ends of the Left (Interview, 2013)

An interview given to Stewart Wood on November 18, 2013.

What is Structural Change and What Kind of Structural Change Do We Need?

An address delivered in London on November 14, 2013 to the Royal Society of Arts.

The Task of the Social Innovation Movement (Video, 2013)

An address, delivered in London on November 14, 2013, to a global meeting on social innovation organized by the Nesta Foundation.

Democracy Realized (Book, 1998)

Published by Verso in 1998. This book is the most comprehensive of my recent statements of “The Second Way.”

The Future of the Left (Interview, 2014)

Interview given to The European, October 24, 2011.